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As has become customary, aldermen bitched and moaned about Mayor Daley’s $6.1 billion budget before they passed it today. Nobody claimed to like it, though 38 aldermen voted in favor of it. But that number is smaller than it has been for most of Daley's reign. In years past the mayor viewed a single nay vote as an intolerable act of defiance; these days he’s lucky no one else has the clout to wield or goodies to hand out that he does, because his governing style is wearing thinner among an ever larger group of aldermen. As in a dozen.
Still, their arguments are getting more pointed. For evidence, consider the diatribe that 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen delivered to explain why he was casting his first vote against a Daley budget since the mayor appointed him to the City Council in 1993. “I have come to the conclusion that this 2010 budget is one that I have no confidence in,” Allen said.
He offered three reasons. “First and foremost,” he said, “the parking meter spending plan here I consider to be a breach of our fiduciary duties to the taxpayers that we represent.” Allen produced materials that Daley budget aides had distributed to aldermen a year ago when they rammed the 75-year parking meter privatization deal through the council in four days. He said aldermen were promised that the administration would save enough of the proceeds that the interest on them would equal or exceed the $20 million the city was accustomed to collecting from the meters. Instead, Daley’s budget will burn through two-thirds of the replacement fund in a single year.
“We have lost the replacement money,” Allen said. “You cannot break a contract in 12 months that is supposed to last for 75 years. It is unconscionable, irresponsible, and it is disingenuous.”
Then, he said, there’s the issue of how the administration manages its TIF program. Allen said he was a fan of tax increment financing. “It has done good things for us as a city. It has done great projects.”
But Allen said it’s being abused while the administration maintains a “stubborn and obstinate refusal and failure to address TIF reform.” His suggestion: take a year's worth of funds out of the city’s replenishable 160 TIF accounts and use it—instead of the finite parking meter money—to balance the regular budget.
Allen acknowledged that the council has reasons to worry about the repercussions of TIF reform. “Everyone in this room is nervous because we have been told that if anyone messes with the TIF, you are going to lose your park projects, your street projects.” But the council needs to do it anyway, he said.
Allen also had a beef with the size of the budget—it’s up 3 percent over last year though revenues have fallen and the economy is in the tank. “When we have no money,” he said, “I don't understand that.”
Other than that, things are great.
Allen predicted that some of his colleagues would counter-attack him, and he was right. A few minutes after he spoke the venerable 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, a frequent Daley administration defender, responded point by point, in reverse order.
He said it’s no wonder the budget is bigger than last year. “When the economy is bad the cost of government doesn’t go down—it goes up.” Stone said that’s because the city has to provide more services because more people are in need.
As for the TIF program: It’s working great. “All it’s resulted in in my community is a new school,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s so bad.”
Sure, it might be helpful to tweak things a bit—“If we need to reform them, then great”—but for god’s sake stop talking crazy about incorporating TIF funds into the regular budget so everyone can see how they’re used. Stone said aldermen should know by know that they can use TIFs to generate money for their communities. “It’s not something to put into your budget!” Stone declared. “It’s a tool!”
And he was flabbergasted that his colleagues could still be doubting the worth of the parking meter deal. “Have you been brainwashed by the media?” he wondered, and then later answered himself: “You’ve been brainwashed by the media.”
Thanks to higher meter rates, more spaces are open at neighborhood shopping strips and more customers are visiting them, Stone said. Moreover, without the deal aldermen wouldn’t even be debating whether to use the reserve funds because there wouldn’t be any. “You knew we were going to have a problem this year,” Stone said, and thanks to the meter privatization, “You knew we were going to have a rainy day fund.”
Stone isn’t worried about replenishing the meter funds at a date to be named later. He noted that the city owns all kinds of vacant land that it can sell when the markets are better.
“We’ll recover our money in no time!” Stone proclaimed. “This is a great city, a great body, and we will recover!”